‘Now or never!’:
Insights into bilingual parenthood

By Dina Mehmedbegovic-Smith

After my presentation on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism and Healthy Linguistic Diet approach at VIII Congresso Internazionale Societa Italiana di Didactica delle Lingue e Linguistica Educativa in Perugia, a colleague from the audience congratulated me on my work and started sharing with me her experience of bringing up her children in English and Italian in Perugia. The initial insights she shared made me ask her, if I could do an in depth interview with her. She agreed enthusiastically. Here are the key points we explored:

When her first child was born, almost 8 years ago, she felt very strongly that as a native English speaker, she should speak to her child in English. She expressed this intuitive feeling as: ‘You have this one moment in life to learn two languages as a native speaker of both. I, as a bilingual mother, can give my children this important opportunity. And it is only this moment in life, in their early childhood. It is now or never! I did not want to miss out on that moment, even though I was frequently told, even by people working in education and medical professionals:  your child will end up less intelligent, if you use two languages, he will start speaking later, he will be confused, he will struggle to follow the curriculum, he will not learn Italian properly, he will have problems with speech, he will get mixed up.’

This amazing mother who, despite all this pressure, had the clarity and determination to make the best use of what she recognised as a once in a lifetime opportunity to have her children be brought up as bilinguals, is:

Beth Watson, Director of the Language School Accademia Britannica in Perugia. Originally from Newcastle, Beth has been living in Perugia for the last 20 years. With her partner, who is Italian, Beth has two bilingual boys: 8 and 5 years old. She has endured frequent concerning projections of the deficits her children will experience, because they are not being brought up as monolingual.

She has never wavered in her determination to teach her children English despite continuous advice from people, including those working in education, not to bring up her children bilingually, not to use English at home. She took it upon herself to read relevant research studies on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, which gave her strength and guidance in her quest, although she never doubted her choice as the correct choice in her parenthood and her most important duty as a bilingual mother. Her two bilingual boys are doing well in school, across the curriculum and in both languages.

In my publications, I have written about the role of parents in language maintenance process. I have identified them as the most important link in the process of language maintenance and the development of bilingual skills. Beth is a shining example of a parent as an unbreakable diamond in this chain. I stand in front of Beth in admiration – she is a parent that every bilingual child needs and deserves.

When I ask her what she thinks would help parents in her situation, she says: ‘We need messages from the top, politicians to know and talk about cognitive benefits of bilingualism. We need educators to know up to date research, to be aware of the cognitive advantages of bilingualism.’

Healthy Linguistic Diet partnerships do exactly this and more: engage with all stakeholders: children, parents, teachers, school leaders, policy makers, politicians and provide guidance based on latest research evidence to support individuals, families, schools and wider societies in benefiting from becoming bilingual – multilingual – plurilingual. After my presentation in Perugia I hope to develop further partnerships in Italy, where my HLD approach has already been successfully implemented in three schools.

Many thanks to Beth Watson for generously sharing her experiences.

Beth Watson has worked in ELT since 2004, firstly as a teacher in both state and private schools in Perugia and then in academic management. She has been Director of Accademia Britannica Perugia (a member of the prestigious AISLI association of Language Schools of excellence in Italy) and Centre Exams Manager for Cambridge Assessment English for 10 years and previously worked for the University of Perugia. Beth has also run teacher training events for a number of years.

About the author

Dina is an associate professor of Education and Applied Linguistics at University College London, Institute of Education. Dina teaches on a range of programmes at PGCE, MA and doctoral level. She was on the core IOE team developing the National English as an Additional Language (EAL) Workforce Strategy; a key staff member in the development of the new programmes addressing the needs of bilingual children: MA in Bilingual Learners in Urban Settings, PGCE EAL Pathway and MA TESOL pre-service, which she currently leads. Her previous roles also include: Deputy Director of the London Education Research Unit (2009-11) and the editor of the IOE publication the London Digest, with the brief of generating and sharing knowledge on key education issues in London and global cities. Her research focuses on attitudes to bilingualism/multilingualism, minority languages and positioning of languages in relation to domination, political power and language disappearance. She is currently developing interdisciplinary work with colleagues from neuroscience aimed at providing a broader evidence base for advocating cognitive benefits of bilingualism in education and life-long learning. Her concept Healthy Linguistic Diet is an innovative approach to language learning and has been endorsed by the EU Commission in their report: Rethinking Language Education, as a part of the EU Language policy review.


Dina’s work on using autobiographical multimedia classroom approaches to develop intercultural competencies has been published and recognised as good practice by the Department of Education, NALDIC (National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum) and the British Council.

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